A conversation with with Daniel Stillman, founder of the Conversation Factory & Master Facilitator

Have you ever wondered what it means to be a professional conversation designer? Listen as your host Douglas Ferguson and his guest Daniel Stillman, the founder of the Conversation Factory and a master facilitator, discuss what it means to be a conversation designer and much more in this episode of the Control Room Podcast.

Daniel shares how he got started as a conversation designer and why he believes that everything is an active conversation. He speaks about what he would change about meetings and why having a narrative with an opening, exploration, and closing is essential in a productive conversation.

Listen as Douglas and Daniel discuss impromptu networking, the best questions to ask, and the definition of appreciative inquiry. They also talk about meeting mantras and why they are so important. Daniel shares his take on why using sticky notes is so effective in the ideation process and how to translate the practice to the virtual landscape.

Daniel also explains how to host a virtual rock, paper, scissors tournament; it’s both crazy and fun. Order a copy of Daniel’s book Good Talk, How to Design Conversations that Matter’, available now.

Show Highlights

[00:50] Welcome.
[01:02] Daniel’s journey as a conversation designer.
[04:01] Teaching design thinking to non-designers.
[04:48] Everything is a conversation.
[07:43] Providing an interface for an important idea for a product.
[08:34] One thing Daniel would change when it comes to having meetings.
[11:06] A narrative is crucial in conversations–opening, exploring, and closing.
[13:19] Closing out daily meetings with precision.
[16:14] The power of impromptu networking to make meetings better.
[19:23] Impromptu networking is a great way to model the participation that you expect.
[20:34] Daniel’s favorite questions to ask.
[22:15] Appreciative inquiry, defined.
[24:23] The evolution and significance of Daniel’s mantra.
[26:27] Sticky note ideation heightens focus on specific concepts.
[29:03] Reading the room virtually.
[31:16] Virtual rock, paper, scissors tournament.
[34:47] Ways to signal during virtual group gatherings.
[35:48] Distributive facilitation and the future of work.
[39:23] Thank you.
[41:02] Waiting forever is not a good business plan for your company or your wedding.
[43:24] Do large virtual meetings need comedians to keep people interested?
[44:57] Daniel’s book.
[47:23] It has been a pleasure.
[47:36] Subscribe.

Daniel Stillman
Good Talk: How to Design Conversations That Matter
LinkedIn | Twitter | YouTube

About the Guest

Daniel Stillman designs conversations for a living and insists that you actually do that too. As an independent design facilitator, he works with clients and organizations of all shapes and sizes (From Google to Visa, to name a few) to help them frame and sustain productive and collaborative conversations, deepen their facilitation skills, and coach them through the innovation process. His first book, The 30 Second Elephant and the Paper Airplane Experiment is about origami and teams and yes, it’s as strange as it sounds. His newest book, Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter, is a holistic and tactical approach to designing conversations that matter. In it, Daniel shares his Conversation OS Canvas,  a tool for focusing on the elements that make up a conversation in order to increase your conversational range and empower you to lead and facilitate a wider range of interactions in your work and life. Daniel hosts The Conversation Factory podcast where he interviews leaders, changemakers, and innovators on how they design the conversations in their work and lives.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings. 

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Full Transcript

Intro: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.

Douglas: Today on Control the Room Podcast, I have Daniel Stillman. Daniel Stillman is a conversation designer, and insists that you’re one, too. He is the founder of the Conversation Factory and a master facilitator. Welcome to the podcast, Daniel.

Daniel: Douglas, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Douglas: Of course. So, Daniel, I’d love to just have the listeners just hear a little bit about how you got started.

Daniel: So, this is funny because I was thinking about this during our pre-conversation. You and I have known each other for a while, but there’s still stuff we don’t know about each other. This came up when we were having a conversation last week, where you’re like, “I don’t know the story behind that thing. You just assume I know that because I’ve known you for a couple of years,” stuff I’ve just never talked about. And so you’ve heard little snippets. So it’s just kind of funny because we’re friends, and now I’m telling you my story. I don’t know. Just pulling out for a second on the meta-ness of it all.

Douglas: Yeah. And as you know, conversations can get weird.

Daniel: Yeah, they sure can. So, wait. What was the question again? How did I—what’s my origin story?

Douglas: That’s right.

Daniel: Was there any radioactive spiders involved in how I got my superpowers? I feel like I found my way into conversation design through design. I remember actually seeing an ad in the New York Times back when people found jobs in the New York Times’ job-wanted section. Like, that was a thing. And I remember seeing this job for an exhibit designer, and I was like, this is so cool, because I had a background in science. I had studied physics in undergrad. And this idea of designing science exhibits—I loved going to museums when I was a kid. I grew up in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I went to the Museum of Natural History as a kid often. That’s where they would just send us on a rainy day. Like, just go there.

And this idea of being able to walk into a space and automatically learn just by being immersed in a space, just like, I don’t know. It kind of tickled me. And I wound up going to design school because they had a studio in science-exhibit design. And so I was super-duper excited to learn how to become a designer and how to design spaces for education.

But while I was in design school, what I really learned was human-centered design. This idea that, wow, you can just go out into the world and talk to some people and learn about their problems, and then, make some stuff for them that they like, and then find out if they like it, and then, try it out again, make some test iterations. This was, like, 2005, 2006. The idea of human-centered design and design thinking we’re really, I mean, nascent in design at the time. Pratt, where I went to school, was still very much form. We studied negative space and curves for entire semester-long classes. And so this idea of designing for people and designing for needs is what really inspired me.

But when I got out of school and I started working in a design studio, what I realized was that I actually had to start designing—I didn’t know at the time—but I was designing conversations: stakeholder-engagement workshops to try to pull intelligence out of various stakeholders to understand user needs. And so workshop design became a real passion for me. And so that’s kind of how I got to where I am today was I realized that design thinking and teaching design thinking to non-designers was something that was really important. I had this fantasy. I was like, if we all knew the rules to the same game, we could play the game. Let’s make something that matters together, right? And that to me are like—those are the rules of design thinking. Hey, let’s empathize and understand and define and deliver. That’s what I do now is I try to inspire people to be intentional about how they create.

Douglas: That’s amazing. So, thinking back to when you were just post school and you were starting to have some of those early realizations that everything was a conversation, can you take us to that moment? And what was it that really clicked for you? How did that make you feel, or what was surfacing? Was there something that wasn’t quite serving you at the time and you realized there needed to be more, or was it just an observation?

Daniel: Actually, I can—I really remember the moment. I went to an event that my friend Jooyoung Oh was running. She was a design researcher at the time, and for many years she worked at Ziba. And at the time—I can’t remember what she was doing—but she did this workshop where she had us do collages of words and pictures that she had printed out on stickers. And we did this visual collage of “my ideal experience for blank is…,” and “my ideal experience for blank is not…” So she gave us these sheets of stickers with words and pictures on them. The pictures were evocative, emotional, suggestive. And we made these collages, and they became a focal point for a dialog. And I remember doing this and I was like, “Oh, my god, this is amazing.” And it seemed so simple.

But we had this big meeting coming up with some stakeholders in the consultancy I was working on, and we were doing this big kickoff for this bug-repellent product, which I probably shouldn’t talk about. And I said to my boss, he’s like, “We really need to understand all these different stakeholders and what they really think this thing should be.” And I was like, “Oh, my god, I’ve got a thing for that.” The language I would use now is “I have a design for that conversation.” I explained it to him a little bit, and he squinted his eyes, and he’s like, “Okay.” And I’m like, “Dude, you got to trust me on this. I can land this plane. It’s going to get us good information.”

And I remember going into that meeting, and we did this exercise. I remember—I literally remember printing out these sheets of these words and these stickers and these images. And one member of the stakeholder team was an engineer, and the other was a marketer. And there was a word that was placed on the is versus the isn’t, in either case. The engineer did not want the experience of this chemical bug-repellent product to be magical, and the marketer thought that the experience should be magical. And so what we had was this conversation about magical and what it meant for something to be magical, and why the engineer didn’t want it to be magical and why the marketer did want it to be magical.

Magical to the marketer meant effortless, easy, efficacious. Boom, done—bugs are gone. And to the engineer, he’s like, “If it’s magical, then that means that people don’t trust it. If it’s magical, people don’t understand why it works. If it’s magical, people can’t understand that it’s safe and scientific.”

And so just from that collaging effort, which some people would deride as goofy, mood boarding, or whatever, it provided us with an opportunity to dive into this really important conversation, which is, What do we want this thing to be, and what do we want our customers to think about it?

And what we were doing was providing an interface for the conversation. If we just said, ”Hey, what do you guys want this to be?” it would have seemed like, I don’t know, one, we didn’t know our stuff. But by giving them an activity to do, it pulled ideas out of their heads and put them on the wall and allowed us to unpack a really, really important idea for the project. What is magical?

Douglas: That’s amazing. I think that is a challenge that I see in so many meetings, where two people are using two different words to mean two different things, or they’re using the same word to mean different things. And that’s a real problem. And often it is not surfaced, and I think that’s where a lot of these visual-thinking tools can really surface some of those things and then gives us an opportunity to discuss it. Can shape the narrative.

And when I asked you about one thing that you could change about meetings, you talked about this need to have a narrative for our meetings. And just “we’re having a meeting” is a flat story, and you’re looking for something more dynamic. So tell us a little more about that.

Daniel: Well, you were in the room when our friend Allan Chochinov, at the first masterclass, Facilitation Masterclass, you came to in New York, when Allan talked about, what was it, like, a text expander that one of his students made? Allan was an old professor of mine at Pratt. Now he runs the Products of Design program at SVA. And one of his students wrote a text expander so that whenever you write meeting, it erases it. You literally can’t write the word meeting, because a meeting is a meaningless word. A meeting can mean so many different things that it means nothing. What are we doing at that meeting? Are we meeting to sing a song together? Are we going caroling. Let’s meet to go caroling. Oh, let’s meet to align on a decision. Let’s meet to figure out what our options are. Let’s meet to plan the holiday party. It doesn’t mean anything.

And so Allan’s idea was if you don’t have a prototype, you shouldn’t have a meeting. If you don’t have an object or an interface or a list, a thing to start the conversation off with, you shouldn’t have that meeting. And so I think the story of “let’s have a meeting” is just, it’s a flat story, but it’s also just a super-incomplete story. “Let’s meet in order to blank, and let’s talk about these three things, and I think that we should have process x, y,  and z  to discuss about them. Here’s who can make the final decision. I’m just going to be gathering your inputs.” “Oh, okay, cool. I don’t want to come to that meeting if I can’t make the final decision.”

Oh, interesting. Now we have tension and a cliffhanger for how this story is going to end. If you told people the real story of your meeting, most people might not even come to those meetings, which people don’t like. “Well, what if I made my meetings optional? People might not come.” And I’m like, “Yeah, well, make your meetings better, make them matter, talk about something that people really care about.”

Douglas: That’s amazing. Also, I think the super power of that is when you realize that there’s actually multiple narratives, multiple tracks, and that you might need to divide your audience. If someone’s focused more strategically and someone else more tactical, being able to split those things rather than jamming everyone together into the same conversation and creating so much discord.

Daniel: Yeah. Everybody’s sitting around a table and talking over each other. And yeah, so this is why narrative is important in conversations, at least this idea of opening, exploring, and closing.

Years after people come to my Facilitation workshops, the one thing people remember, they forget most things, but the one thing they remember is this idea of opening, exploring, and closing, and having time to both open or diverge and close and converge and making some time in the middle for something interesting to emerge. And I absorbed that idea from Dave Gray’s coauthored book, Gamestorming, just the importance of having those three modes of thinking. And I think having that baked into the process and communicating that to people, it just means that we expect that something interesting and surprising will happen. Otherwise, just make a video. Just make a video of what you’ve decided and just tell everybody.

Douglas: It’s fascinating because Dave Gray talks about the explorer section also being referred to as the groan zone because no one typically enjoys it. But the funny thing is most people, their meetings just consist of explorer. Let’s just start exploring when we walk in the door, and then we explore until we have to walk out of the door. And that’s really unfortunate if you don’t give people that time, that boot-up time.

I just recently read a book on facilitation that was talking about—they were talking about it as clearing, which I thought was a really fascinating way to think about an opener, is allowing people to clear themselves and get ready for the meeting to start.

Daniel: Well, you’re basically closing before you can open. As we all know, if you don’t close, you can’t open the next—like, if you don’t—and I’m sure you’ve seen this in sprints, right? If people don’t close on day one, mapping the problem, it’s really hard to open on day two, finding a target. And if you don’t close on a target, it makes drawing a set of solutions really, really super hard. And if you refuse to close on a smaller number of prototypes, it means that your last day of the sprint’s going to be a bear because you test everything.

Douglas: Yeah. And we’ve often talked about how critical closing is in the kind of more macro sense as well, because if you aren’t closing out your everyday meetings with precision, then it’s really difficult to align on anything.

The real, I think pathological cases, when you walk out thinking you’re aligned, but you’re not, and so everyone else is telling a different narrative. And you were all in the same meeting, so it should sound like it.

Daniel: The cost is even higher than that, Douglas, because internally—I think one of the reasons why people pay an external facilitator, one reason why people hire me and hire you, is to create urgency. “Douglas is here. We’ve paid him. It’s expensive. Everyone stop what you’re doing. We have to focus now.” When people have an internal meeting, their urgency isn’t there. There’s no burning platform, like Kotter talks about. There’s no urgency. And so if you don’t close, you push off decisions.

And work is a gas. A gas at standard pressure and temperature expands to fill the space available to it. So time creates pressure, and a sprint or a workshop reduces the volume of space we have to it. And if we don’t cap things off or tie them off and say that this is the decision we’re going to have, and now we’re going to move on to the next phase, it’s very idealistic to say these things. It is really hard to do, right? It’s really hard to say, okay, well, let’s just try this thing, or let’s move on to the next thing, even though we don’t feel we’re ready. I hate doing it. I still tell my clients to do it because it’s hard. I know it’s important to do, and I struggle with it myself. But if we don’t do that, what happens is we wind up working nights and weekends. That’s the cost—not seeing our families. If we can close in the time that we have proposed, then we can have the rest of our lives back.

Douglas: Yeah, well, it’s interesting. You talked about it being hard, but the answer really is to disagree and commit. If we can come together and not rely on unanimity, this desire to have everyone agree, then we can get to a point where there is a decision, we’re all going to support it, and we’re going to see what comes out. And I think the thing that I try to coach people on is there’re one-way doors and two-way doors. So if it’s a reversible decision, then why are we working weekends to get this?

Daniel: Right. Having kids is not the same thing as, where should we go for vacation? Where you go to vacation is still a reversible because you’ve gone and you’ve spent that money; you’ve gone on that vacation. But you can always just leave early. You know, you can cancel a vacation halfway through. You’re like, “I hate it here. Let’s go someplace else.” But it is very hard to cancel, not to get into any politics, but once you’ve got the kid, it’s really hard to cancel it.

Douglas: That’s right.

Daniel: Still not impossible. All my friends who are adopted, it’s a thing. But it creates repercussions.

Douglas: Let’s shift gear a little bit here and talk about impromptu networking. It is a really powerful way to make meetings better. And why is that?

Daniel: Oh, right, right, right. This was my—actually, it’s funny. I was only a light dabbler in liberating structures before I worked with you. I remember looking at the website, and I know many people have had this experience of, this is a crazy place on the Internet. You get to the website, and you’re like, wow, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, but this looks like the ravings of a madman. And having met Keith, I still actually have that same opinion. It is definitely the ravings of a madman.

And I had done things like that before. I had started most of my workshops in my early days with “Grab someone and tell them a story, and then, listen to their story,” because creating energy in a workshop or a meeting is a hard job, and it shouldn’t be the job, the sole job, the sole responsibility of the facilitator. As I like to say, it’s everybody’s problem we’re here to solve. It’s just not my problem, presumably. If people are here, they’re buying into the problem. So starting with a conversation or a story or a reflection about an important component of it is really, really great. Plus, conversations are complex, and so the fewer number of people in the conversation, the less complex it can feel. And so if you’ve got a group of five or ten or fifteen, pairing up with somebody just immediately simplifies the conversation and makes it more intimate.

I was talking with somebody today about this. He used to be a teacher. And this “think, pair, share,” which I thought I invented because it rhymes, and I thought I was clever, this is baked into Harvard University’s education best practices initiative. And every teacher already knows this. Think to grab a partner and talk to them about blank. It’s just such an easy reflex. But I see so many facilitators who try to wrangle a group as a large mass of people, and I just don’t think it works. You have to be—it takes a lot of strength.

This is a total side note, but I love telling this story. Have you seen The Princess Bride movie?

Douglas: Mm-hmm.

Daniel: Yeah. There’s the scene where Fezzik and the Man in Black are fighting as Vizzini is escaping with Buttercup. And they’ve just climbed up the wall, the Cliffs of Insanity, and they’re about to face off. And spoiler alert—Fezzik loses. And he realizes halfway through the fight why he’s having such a hard time. He’s like, “I haven’t done one-to-one combat in so long. I’m used to fighting groups of people. You have to use different techniques.”

And I think of impromptu networking as a really, really great group-fighting technique, because it doesn’t matter if you’ve got two people or ten people or a hundred people, you say, “Okay, everybody grab a partner and have a quick conversation about blank.” And then the room is filled with energy that you did not have to create. People are connecting to other people, they’re learning from each other, and then it’s up to you to do the next thing, which is take that energy and funnel it, direct it, focus it towards the next activity, get people to do something with that inspiration and that information and that connection that they’ve gotten from other people at the moment.

Douglas: Yeah. And we often talk about modeling behavior. And I think impromptu networking is a great way to model the participation that we expect. So we get them at ease with participating and gaining that human connection that they so need. And especially in the virtual world, it’s really critical to start setting some of those expectations, because people aren’t used to doing it when they’re tuning in the virtual webinars and stuff.

Daniel: Oh, my god, I know. I did that with a workshop, super-duper early in the meeting. And one of the reasons why I like to do it early is this idea of antifragile openings. If somebody shows up five or ten or fifteen minutes late, they can still float in, weave in to the second or third pairing. And this woman was like, “I knew you would do breakout rooms. I didn’t think it would happen so soon.” I’m like, “Yeah, if you show up 20 minutes late to this workshop, you’re going to miss something, but you’re not going to miss everything. You’re still going to be able to get some…” She was able to come into the third pairing in impromptu networking.

Douglas: For sure. And impromptu networking only works if you have a good invitation, and your prompt has to be tight. This means that you have to have a good question. So Daniel, what are your favorite questions?

Daniel: Oh, man. That’s my favorite question. That’s definitely my favorite question. I actually asked that of somebody on a recent podcast episode that I was hosting, on my Conversation Factory podcast. I interviewed Cameron Yarbrough, who has a scaled coaching platform called Torch.io. And his favorite question to ask people is, what are your blind spots? And boy, oh boy, that’s a really—I mean, technically an impossible question to answer yourself, but it’s a really, really interesting one. He described it as a cone, like a Zen question that is unanswerable but interesting. And so good questions can be like that.

I think the other easy, easy question is, tell me a story about blank. Just tell me a story when you last blank, or tell me a story about how you have blanked. Or just go straight to story because stories evoke emotions and empathy. So don’t just say, “Tell me a story of when you were at your best.” It’s a hard question to answer still, but it’s a really interesting one, and it evokes interesting reactions for people. And that’s why I think focusing on positivity over negativity is always hard.

Douglas: Absolutely. That was the thing I was going to bring up next, actually, was the fact that I’m a huge fan of, if your questions can be appreciative or express gratitude, that can be really amazing. And if you can make people become introspective. So think about a time when you maybe received—what’s the best compliment you’ve ever received? So lovely.

Daniel: Yeah. And just to double stitch on that, by the way, not everybody knows what appreciative inquiry is. And it’s, when you look at it, if you come from design thinking or the sprint world, you look at appreciative inquiry, and you’re like, it can be weird, but you’re like, wait, how is this different than design thinking? And the difference is is that you only focus on the positive. And there’s this idea that you can, in fact, heal a system and a person by looking at only the positives.

And in my book, I actually, I found a story. I couldn’t find the truth of it. I couldn’t find a direct quote, but people have talked about it, this idea that—I forget the name of the Dallas Cowboys coach—but at one point during a slump, he was like, we are only going to show you your best plays. You know, they tape the plays, and they go back, and they review things. They’re like, look, we are going to review and analyze your best plays only.

And it kind of flips things on its head because a lot of designers and a lot of innovators think like, oh, we’re problem solving. And so if I’m problem-solving, I have to look at what’s broken, and then I have to fix it. But with appreciative inquiry, there’s this radical idea that I can find what’s working and ask how I can magnify it and expand it.

Douglas: Yeah. there’s an amazing book called Super Human, and it goes into a lot of super athletes that are doing just amazing things, like free scaling mountains, and the winged airmen—the Red Bull team that just jumps off of buildings and does insane things.

Daniel: Base jumpers.

Douglas: Exactly. And one of the things that they discovered—and this is a phenomenon in this world—which is there is something that humans have not been able to do for decades. And the first time one human does it, like 10, 15 other humans would do it a day later, because they’ve shown that it’s possible. It just opens up the world of, well, now I can just go to do that thing that I know—I’ve seen them do it. Now I can do it.

Daniel: Yeah. Wow. I love that. That’s really, really awesome.

Douglas: And so this is similar to your mantra, Daniel: if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. So we need to be able to see it to prove it, and then we can we can double stitch on it. And we have a mantra that’s similar: always capture room intelligence. So why is this so important?

Daniel: Well, I, first, have to honor my friend Miles Begin, who gave me that mantra years ago, and that was when I first started teaching design thinking to non-designers. That’s the whole point is if it’s not on a sticky note and it’s not on the wall, we can’t talk about it. And having that mantra’s really helpful, especially if you have over-talkers in the room, and it’s also really helpful if you have “under-talkers” in the room. If somebody’s really, really overexplaining an idea, you can say, “Hey, can you fit that on one sticky note and get it up on the wall? That is truly, truly awesome. That’ll be great.”

But we used to tell a story about—have you ever watched Mad Men?

Douglas: Of course.

Daniel: Yeah. So there’s an amazing Mad Men episode where—I forget the team. It’s, like, Peggy and a couple of the other people stay up all night to bang out some ideas for something. They’re drinking, and they’re smoking. And they finally have this amazing insight, and they’re like, “Wow, that is such a great idea!” And then they go to sleep because they’re satisfied. Spoiler alert—they didn’t write their idea down. And so the next day, when Don Draper comes in, and Don’s like, “Okay, what’d you jerks come up with?” And they’re like, “Oh, my god, we’ve got this great idea,” and they’re looking around their desks, and they’re like,  Wait a minute. What was it?” And their brains are just this empty vacuum of space. And they’re like, “Oh, my god, we didn’t write it down.” And they’re just crestfallen. And Don’s like, “I understand. That happens sometimes.” It’s one of the few moments when Don decides to be really, really human. Like, he gets it. You didn’t write down the idea, and it disappeared.

And so I found an old PowerPoint of mine from, like, one of the first design-thinking workshops I ever taught. And there is a scene—we found a screenshot of Don Draper and some other people, just to teach people this idea of, if you don’t write down your ideas, they will disappear into the air. And this is long before I knew that conversations had interfaces and that if you use a durable interface for your conversations, not surprisingly, you can have a more-sustained conversation about it. That’s why when you get it on the wall, we can talk about it. If it’s not on the wall, I’m just interpreting what I heard, and it can disappear in the air.

So one of the great things about design-thinking workshops is that we create this paper trail of insights and agreements when we go from phase to phase. And if you don’t do that, we’re having a much floofier conversation. So it’s really, really important to get things down.

And if we’re talking about virtual, it’s actually really problematic. I mean, I love MURAL, but MURAL sticky notes are not the same thing as real sticky notes, because on a real sticky note, there’s a limit to how much information I can put on the sticky note. With MURAL, you can literally write the great American essay on one sticky note and just shrink it down to infinitely small size. So, you’re not as limited.

We always used to tell people, oh, use Sharpie on a sticky note. That’s because a Sharpie and a sticky note create one idea. But it’s way too easy in virtual visual capture to put too much information into one sticky note.

Douglas: You know, Daniel, that’s a big debate: how much limitations did the software put on us to mimic the real world? I think that’s a fascinating conversation.

Daniel: I would love to be able to switch on real-sticky-note mode.

Douglas: Yeah, that’d be fantastic. And I find as a facilitator, where you talked about virtual being more difficult, and this is just one example. There’s a long, long list of why we have to lean in more, and it’s difficult to be a lazy facilitator, virtually, whether it’s we’re looking to see how long the sticky notes are or we’re making sure that people are connected and having to do troubleshooting and provide technical support.

One of the things we spoke about, this notion of helping teams get unstuck and making sure that they continue the momentum as they leave the workshop and they go start to build their vision. And you talked about that being the magic question, just having to look around and just check and see if everything’s fixed. This is something that I’ve talked to Erick Skogsberg quite a bit about, this notion of, from learning the science, we have to consider assessment points. What is our learning objective and making sure we’ve built in points of assessment so we can understand if we’ve gotten there. And even if you’re not training people, it’s important that you build this into workshops because you’re taking people on a journey and you want to make sure that they’re hitting the milestones, right? What do we do virtually? You and I have talked about this quite a bit, but what do the listeners need to know about virtual kind of reading the room?

Daniel: Well, you have to find other feedback loops. And I think that’s where—like, when we’ve set up MURALS for multiple tables, when you put them on separate MURALS, which I know is something you’ve recommended in the past, especially if you’re doing a larger meeting, putting them on separate MURALS reduces the load, but it makes it harder as a facilitator to monitor multiple tables. So it’s nice to have three or—if you only have 15 or 20 or 30 people to just make areas for each of the breakout rooms to work, because then you can just see everything that’s happening, because while MURAL does have those preview images, as we’ve argued over before, the preview images don’t update often enough for you to get that feedback loop, but it can be really, really simple. I’ve seen you do this, where you ask everybody to rename themselves in Zoom. And that’s pretty meta because you’re asking them to give you some information about themselves, but you’re also testing whether or not they’re engaged and whether or not they are interested. And if you don’t see people—if you see people not doing that, then, we don’t have anyplace to go because it’s like, oh, they don’t know how to use the tool, Zoom, and they aren’t interested enough to tell you something about themselves in this area. And so it’s just finding simpler, smaller feedback loops to make sure that you’re moving forward with people with you, if that makes sense.

Douglas: Oh, absolutely. And we’ve been using two facilitators in most of our workshops, with someone dedicated to looking for those signals. So they’re kind of keeping a lookout for those things. So, absolutely.

And also, just to keep this a bit evergreen, I’m now on the beta for the new rendering engine, so do not have to make multiple MURALS for even larger gatherings now on MURAL, so that’s pretty exciting. And after that launches, you won’t have to be in the beta program, have access to that. So I’m sure listeners in the future will be happy to have that.

Daniel: I’m wondering why I’m not on that beta program.

Douglas: I think you should talk to some friends, Daniel.

So with that, I’m super-curious about Rock, Paper, Scissors online. How does this work?

Daniel: Well, so here’s the thing. Like I say, I, because I think you’re referring to a LinkedIn post that I made, where I didn’t even think it was possible. I just sort of assumed. And this goes to your sporting-events thing, right? where when somebody does it, then you’re like, oh, that’s how to do it. And it partially goes against my lazy facilitation principle. But during some of the facilitation masterclass cohorts that I run, we make spaces for people to try out new warmups and icebreakers that they’ve never done before. And this one woman, Janine Underhill, said, I’d like to try to do a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament.” And I’m like, “Good luck, sister. I’m going to enjoy this.” And she did it. She did it. It can be done.

I think what’s interesting about it is that simultaneity in remote facilitation is impossible because of the speed-of-light limit. It’s basically an Einstein-Bose condensate kind of a problem. If you and I tried to snap at the same time, we can’t. Even if we said, “One, two, three, snap,” we wouldn’t snap at the same time, because you wouldn’t hear me snapping at the same time. There’s a delay because we’re in between this piece of software. The software institutes a delay, and sound travels more slowly than light. And so we’re never going to have simultaneity.

In person, it is very hard to notice that lack of simultaneity, right? When I say, “Rock, paper, scissors, shoot,” it seems simultanous because we’re within, like, two feet of each other. But when we are 100,000 miles from each other, and we are on Zoom, we notice it. And what happens is people start slowing down, because we go one, two, three, shoot, as we wait for the other person to catch up with us. And then somebody always throws before the other person, and so it’s like—but we don’t have a response action time to metabolize that information. And so it’s actually a really interesting learning opportunity to talk about how challenging communication can be remotely. But it is totally possible to do it, and it is fun to do it, and it is ridiculous to do it. Everyone should try it.

Douglas: That’s amazing. So structurally, when you do a Rock, Paper, Scissors battle, you’re just having people start off in groups.

Daniel: Yes.

Douglas: And then the winners are laddering up to—it’s like a basketball tournament kind of…

How do you do all these groups? Are you doing breakout groups, and then combine them together?

Daniel: Yes, I will, in the interest of community, I will tell you all of my secrets. So Janine worked too hard at it, I think. She did all the initial pairings. We only had a group of 15, and she did all the initial pairings, and she did the secondary pairings as well, and she did the tertiary pairings. She called out all the pairings, kept track of it all. And that was to her credit.

Douglas: She was recording the brackets.

Daniel: She was the bracket-eur. My variation is to have people turn off their video if they lose. That’s the easiest thing to do is just have people turn off their video if they lose, because then, at least, the bracketing is easier.

Douglas: Yeah. Or someone could raise their hand if they’re looking for…

Daniel: Yes. Totally. They’re signaling. And so here’s the thing. We could try to do it a perfect way, or we could let the group solve it and see if we can get them to understand everything there is to understand about group communication, because signaling, oh, how do we signal stuff? Okay. How do we start—how do we keep signaling for the rest of our meetings? Okay, cool. And I’ve seen groups really develop some great habits around, okay, put your hand over your head if you haven’t blanked. And so I don’t think the bracketing thing—video makes it easier. Bracketing, the problem is, is that I think bracketing can’t be done automatically. It’s much harder to say, okay, I’m going to claim blank person as my hand-off person. So I haven’t solved it. But I also haven’t tried to do it with 100 hundred people. I’ve only done it with 20. And then it works fine. And it’s fun.

Douglas: Absolutely.

Daniel: It’s as fun and as ridiculous, if not more so, than doing it virtually.

Douglas: Speaking of distributed facilitation in general, you’ve mentioned to me that it’s weirder and squishier. So I guess some final comments for the listeners around challenges, just why is it weirder and squishier? And then, what are you hopeful for? What are you optimistic about?

Daniel: I’ve written about this before. I can send you a link to the article on LinkedIn that I wrote. It’s called “This Digital Place,” and we have a sense of place that comes for free by being four-dimensional beings. We exist in space and time, and we’ve had a long time, our entire lives, to get used to it. And we’ve had 40,000 years as modern humans to evolve for it. We’ve evolved in it. This is our—you know, [knocks on wood] this physical space is my native place. And so when we go into this digital place, it feels weird because it is literally not natural for us. But those Post-it notes behind you on the wall are not natural for us either. We designed those for ourselves as a tool, and I cannot imagine having an in-person meeting without those tools anymore, in the short decade that I’ve had those tools. I remember we didn’t always have big Post-it sticky pads. We didn’t always have whiteboards. We’ve grown really used to this environment. In the last 10, 20, 30 years, we’ve created this built environment around our meetings and our engagements, and we require them now. But I assure you, they are not natural. They feel natural to us because we’ve become acculturated to it and to them. And we do not have a culture for this distributed place. We don’t have rituals for this distributed place. We are learning them slowly but surely.

The example I love to give is, whatever it was, like, maybe five years ago, that guy from the BBC whose kids tromped in in the middle of his presentation—a little girl in yellow, running in like she owned the place. It was hilarious. And the guy was super embarrassed. The mother of the kids was extra-special embarrassed. And I was listening to NPR yesterday, where this woman was welcoming this man on to share a report about something. And he’s like, I’m really glad to be here. Blah, blah, blah. And then his dog barks in the background. And the interviewer was like, “And it sounds like your dog’s excited to be with us today as well, too. What’s his name?” And he’s like, “It’s Buster.” And she’s like, well, hello to Buster. So, blah, blah, blah, let’s talk about blah, blah, blah. And it was seamless. It was smooth. She was like, whatever. We’re just here, and there’s a dog. Nobody cares anymore.

That’s something to be optimistic about, that we can adapt to this place, that we can learn new tools, that we can learn new rituals and new patterns. The fact of the matter is this is not natural, but there’s very, very little that’s natural about our lives. And we make our lives. We design the spaces and places where we have the conversations that we want to have. And so I’m pretty optimistic about the fact that our old patterns don’t work as well here and that we have to develop new patterns, and that it is possible that maybe we will learn to retain some of those patterns when we get back to meeting in person in 19 months, my current estimate.

Douglas: Well, Daniel, I look forward to continuing this journey with you. I agree, there’s lots to learn and there’s lots to explore. And we won’t know for quite some time where these new norms and these new customs emerge, but I’m already seeing some things happen, and I think you and I are doing our best to be on the forefront of that. And so I just want to say thanks for being there with me, and it’s been fun learning with you.

Daniel: Likewise, man. I mean, a lot of facilitators say, “I can’t feel the room, and it’s not as good.” And honestly, I was one of those facilitators. Jim Kalbach from MURAL will literally quote back to you, like, the umpteen times over the last three years that I said to him, like, “I’m good, dude. I’m a great in-person facilitator. I’d much rather not compete on a global scale with anybody who has access to MURAL for facilitation gigs.” And we’re in a situation where that’s no longer possible in person is a fundamental assumption of what I used to do. That is impossible anymore.

And I think if we can’t adapt, if I can’t adapt, if the rest of us can’t adapt, we are royally screwed. We have to learn how to do this. And that’s one of the reasons why we did the large virtual meetings things together. I thought it was important to push my own limits and say, is it possible to do the kind of big, crazy workshops that we did in person? If they had value—and we thought they did, and I think they still do—then, can we do them here, rather than, I don’t know, wait 18 months before having a bunch of people come together to make an important decision?

I mean, honestly, Janet and I are having a long, ongoing discussion about this. We had to cancel our wedding in June. And what to do about getting married, and do we do a Zoom wedding? Will that be fun? Will that be interesting? Will it feel like a real wedding? Or should we wait an indefinite amount of time to bring everyone together to celebrate the fact that we have something good going here? I don’t think that waiting forever is a really good business plan for anything, not for a marriage and certainly not for third-quarter top-to-top strategic meeting. I see you’re nodding. You’re like, yeah, they should not be putting off those meetings. And I think people are putting them off, or they’re doing them really, really poorly.

Douglas: Yeah. I think there are two outcomes we’ve seen the more we explore this with companies. And some companies have the mindset, they have it figured out because they know how to run a Zoom meeting, or they know how to do webinars.

Daniel: Right. One to Many—done.

Douglas: Yeah. Like, I’m good. So they’re just in the camp of, don’t realize all the potential they’re missing. And then you’ve got another camp that says we’ll just wait until we can do it in person because they’ve got caught flat-footed and they know that there’s so much missing, but they don’t know what to do. And so that’s definitely the inspiration for putting together more virtual offerings. And the large virtual-meetings workshop is, I think, really hits the nail on the head as far as a real challenge around, what do we do with large groups? That sounds troubling. But the fascinating thing to me, Daniel, is that there’s so much more that people learn. These aha moments can apply to much smaller meetings, but it’s the large groups that people are the most confused by, and so that’s where we approach the teaching opportunity.

Daniel: Yeah. And large can just mean 15 or 20. It’s not hard to break the two-pizza rule, right? It is really easy to break the two-virtual-pizza rule quickly, and most of us don’t have Fezzik-level skills when it comes to wrestling with large groups. And we need them. Everybody needs them, I think, especially if you work in a large corporation.

But also, I went to a birthday party on Friday for someone I went to junior high school with. And this guy’s sister, who I was best friends with in junior high, she does stand-up comedy. And we did a call on Wednesday for the party, and she’s like, “What should I’d be looking out for, Daniel?” And I was like, “Well, look, it’s a lot of people. You need to have an M.C.” And she’s like, “Oh, I can do that,” because she’s M.C.’d open comedy nights. And it’s like, “You need to have somebody to keep the energy moving and to orchestrate things and to keep the conversation moving.” It’s not trivial.

I think maybe this is where comics will find work in this new economy. How the Emmys and the Oscars need Billy Crystal and Kevin Hart, maybe these large virtual meetings just need comics, which is an insight you had for the first Control the Room,right? Just bring in some comedy to keep it going.

Douglas: It might work a little better in the virtual setting, maybe. We’ll see.

Daniel: Yeah. Are they available for me and my team?

Douglas: Yeah. Bring them in, for sure. Yeah.

There’s also some companies that have sprung up that allow you to rent—

Daniel: Llamas? Yes, I know.

Douglas: Llamas and perezosos and all sorts of stuff.

Daniel: I don’t even know what those are, but…

Douglas: Oh, it’s a sloth.

Daniel: Oh, okay.

Douglas: Everyone’s got to have a sloth at their workshop.

Daniel: Yeah, but see, that’s just like shiny distraction.

Douglas: I agree. And Daniel, you know, I think this is the exact reason why so many people dislike icebreakers and eye openers and energizers, because they just throw them in, with no reason whatsoever, and without a debrief—in fact, I’ve started to say, if you can’t ask, “Why did we just do that,” and have that erupt into a pithy conversation, ask yourself, “Why did we just do that?”

Daniel: Whoa, yeah. I agree with you. Obviously, I agree with you.

Douglas: So, Daniel, what do we need to leave listeners with? What should they know? And how could they find you, contact info, all that good stuff?

Daniel: Well, I’m on the Internet, easy to find, fairly SEO’d. If you Google “Daniel Stillman,” you might find me. If you Google “The Conversation Factory,” you’ll definitely find me. I have a podcast. I have a book coming out, by the way, Douglas. It will be coming out shortly, God willing. It’s called Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter. They’re advertising it as a step-by-step handbook. It’s not a step-by-step guide, because I don’t think there’s a single recipe that could possibly account for all situations. But it is a map to the territory and can help people learn how to form and shape and guide all the conversations in their lives better, from big-group conversations to the conversations that they have with themselves every day. We have a shocking number of conversations with ourselves, and those need to be designed just as much as quarterly action-plan gatherings and off-sites.

And so if you go https://theconversationfactory.com/goodtalk, you can find it. You can download some chapters. It’s a thing. You don’t have to pay me anything. You don’t have to buy the book. The first two chapters, there’s a lot there—although somebody has told me that I ended the first two chapters at the right spot, that made them want to read the third chapter. And to that, I have to thank Kellie McGann, who helped me with the editing of the book.

Douglas: It is a fantastic book. I’ve read it several times—

Daniel: What?! Crazy.

Douglas: —and I think it’s really critical for people that are wanting to elevate their meetings and just their interactions at work and at home. It is a fantastic way to step back and look at your dialog in an abstract way so that you can put terms to it. So just like physics is the science of being able to take the phenomenon in the world, how the air moves past you and how your car functions, and you can put equations to it so you can understand it. You can talk about it in an abstract way so that you can reason about it. Daniel has done that for conversations. And if you think about how many conversations we have and all the moments throughout life where conversations are important, you can imagine how relevant this book becomes. And I can’t highly recommend it enough.

Daniel: It’s really, really—it’s wonderful to hear you say that. I appreciate you saying it. Writing a book, as you know, is a terrible, terrible thing. I’d never recommend it to anybody. The fact that it’s out there and everyone can read it is terrifying to me. You can see what goes on in my head now, and the fact that I had a love of physics, and still do, and a love of design, it’s not surprising, hearing you talk about it, I’m like, “All right. Of course. That’s why I wrote the book the way that I did.”

Douglas: Excellent. Well, Daniel, it’s been a pleasure having you here today, and I can’t wait to chat with you again.

Daniel: Thanks, Douglas. It’s always a pleasure. Thanks, man.

Outro: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.